After one of the first screenings for Beau Is Afraid, someone stood up and started ranting that he’d just seen the worst film ever made. “I better not hear one single person fucking clap!” he yelled, genuinely angry. As more screenings rolled out, the reactions got more extreme. It was a surrealist horror without any respect for the audience. It was director Ari Aster going through therapy in real-time. An IMAX arthouse experiment. A disaster. A masterpiece.
Overreactions aside, Beau Is Afraid is probably all of the above. Following up Hereditary and Midsommar with his most divisive film yet, Aster has made something utterly unlike anything else you’ve ever likely to see – a weird, scary, funny, awkward, upsetting and oddly life-affirming act of self-obsession. He calls it a “Jewish Lord Of The Rings”, but that’s definitely not it either.
Fast becoming the darling of indie house A24 after just two films, Aster’s latest is what happens when a studio gives a promising new director the money and scope to do whatever the hell they want. And what Ari Aster wants to do is talk about his mum.
Laid out in four or five distinct acts over three deliberately uncomfortable hours, the film finds Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wassermann – a man weighed down with anxiety and guilt and mother-issues – trying to get from his apartment to her house. As the plot goes, that’s sort of it, but the detours along the way drag us through an epic journey that comes reeling out of Aster’s own subconscious like an expensive, beautifully ugly fever dream.
Phoenix is extraordinary as Beau – pouring his whole self into someone else’s psychosis for a jittery, child-like performance that feels like it might break apart at any moment. Patti LuPone also deserves all the Supporting Actor awards next year for her turn as Beau’s monstrous mum – just one horror among so many in a film that crackles with dread and anxiety from the very start.
And it’s funny, too. Made like a comedy, even if it runs like a horror, Beau Is Afraid almost challenges you to laugh even when you feel like crying. Hung so heavily with Freudian symbolism that it features a scene where a man beats a giant penis monster to death, it’s impossible not to see it all as Aster trying to turn his own counselling sessions into something as terrifying, twitchy and accidentally hilarious as only he sees them.
Not that any of that is a bad thing. Standing out in a summer of big-budget movies made by committee, few other films of this size have ever been as uncompromising. Beau Is Afraid is a nightmare in more ways than one. Nothing is real. Everything is frightening – even the funny stuff. Try and remember the story the next day and you’ll only pick out the images and sounds that burrowed into your head.
Far too easy to hate, Beau Is Afraid often doesn’t even feel like it wants to be loved. But stick with it and you’ll find a film so overstuffed with ambition that makes all the others look like they aren’t trying hard enough.
- Director: Ari Aster
- Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan
- Release date: May 19 (in UK cinemas)
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